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(Credit: Jim Summaria)


The competing songs Led Zeppelin wrote about their live shows


The legend that surrounds the live performances of Led Zeppelin has grown to mythic proportions over the course of 50 years. If you read salacious semi-true biographies like Stephen Davis’ Hammer of the Gods or Richard Cole’s Stairway to Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored, you might believe that Led Zeppelin was somewhere between a travelling circus and a mobile Caligula-level orgy featuring wild animals, girls, and nonstop drug use.

While elements of those stories are true for their offstage antics, the reality was that Led Zeppelin largely shunned theatrics and gimmickry in their stage performances. For most of their touring career, Zeppelin took the stage with minimal lights, no projections, no smoke machines, no lasers, and no videos. It was just the band and their audience, connecting with pure unfiltered hard rock. The thousands of teenagers who swayed in perfect time with the rhythms began to inspire the band, and soon there were two songs penned in honour of their transcendent live shows and their beyond loyal audiences.

The first was ‘The Ocean’, a direct reference to the hordes of audience members who moved in motion to every note produced by the band onstage. Most of the time, the band members themselves could hardly pick out any faces or specifics about their crowds – by 1970 they had graduated to arenas and stadiums, elevating them above the intimate club audiences that they initially played for. ‘The Ocean’ was a confirmation that just because they were now the biggest band in the world, the connection with their audience was still as personal as ever.

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The second was ‘Houses of the Holy’, a foot-stomping funk-rock track that referred to the giant venues that Led Zeppelin played. While ‘The Ocean’ was about the audience, ‘Houses of the Holy’ was about the places that Zeppelin took over: The Forum, Earl’s Court, Madison Square Garden, and the Royal Albert Hall, just to name a few. Since their initial performances featured just the band and some lights, the otherworldly connection with the audience was the band’s greatest asset. Night after night, no matter where they were in the world, Zeppelin managed to turn any hockey rink or concert hall into their very own house of the holy.

Both ‘The Ocean’ and ‘Houses of the Holy’ were recorded during the band’s 1972 sessions at Stargroves, Mick Jagger‘s large country estate. The band decided that ‘Houses of the Holy’ would make a good album title, but as they continued to lay down classic track after classic track, a problem arose: there was too much music for a single record. The band had already decided to toss aside tracks like ‘Black Country Woman’ and ‘Walter’s Walk’ that were recorded during the sessions, but during the final stage of mixing there was a decision to make between either ‘The Ocean’ or ‘Houses of the Holy’.

The album Houses of the Holy was taking shape to be the most diverse and eclectic record of the band’s career, featuring the reggae-tinged rocker ‘D’yer Ma’ker’, the James Brown pastiche ‘The Crunge’, the one-two punch of ‘The Song Remains the Same’ and ‘The Rain Song’, and the eerie progressive rock of ‘No Quarter’. ‘The Ocean’ featured a wonky time-shifting riff and a doo-wop coda that was more in line with the varied styles of the album, while ‘Houses of the Holy’ was a more standard rock number. In the end, ‘The Ocean’ won out, and Houses of the Holy didn’t actually end up featuring its title track.

Although ‘Houses of the Holy’ was banished to the band’s vault, it didn’t stay there for long. Just two years after the release of the Houses of the Holy album, Zeppelin was faced with the same problem a second time: they had recorded too much material for a single album. This time, the group opted to raid their outtakes to find suitable material that would flesh out a double album. ‘Houses of the Holy’ was one of the tracks deemed strong enough, and fans were surprised to see a new song called ‘Houses of the Holy’ on Physical Grafitti rather than the album of the same name.

Ultimately, Zeppelin probably made the right choice in cutting ‘Houses of the Holy’ from its parent album. By the time the song finally saw the light of day, ‘The Ocean’ had already become a concert staple for the band. By contrast, ‘Houses of the Holy’ was never played live during the band’s career, and although it remains a fan favourite, the track never took on the iconic status that ‘The Ocean’ did for the Zeppelin faithful. In any case, Zeppelin’s shows were so exciting in their energy that it necessitated two entire songs just to capture the magic on tape.

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